Generation 40s – 四十世代

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How China-US rivalry is hastening the marginalisation of Taiwan

CommentInsight & Opinion

Tian Feilong says America’s use of Taiwan as a bargaining chip in its tussle with China is upsetting the status quo of cross-strait relations. With the DPP government in Taiwan also becoming more provocative, Beijing is being forced to respond

Taiwan received a special “gift” on Labour Day this year – the severance of its diplomatic relationship with the Dominican Republic. This was a blow to the Democratic Progressive Party-led government.

It would be no exaggeration to say that the island faces severe challenges both at home and abroad. Just days earlier, anger over a proposal for pension reform for military veterans led protesters to storm the parliamentary building, recalling the Sunflower Movement of 2014, in which students occupied the Legislative Yuan. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education’s decision not to approve the appointment of National Taiwan University president-elect Kuan Chung-ming led to an outcry of interference in academic freedom.

Herein lies the irony in Taiwan’s democratic development. The DPP, which rose to power as a champion of democracy, is now resorting to institutional violence to keep control and hurting the core values of Taiwanese democracy. The fact is that, although the United States described Taiwan as a “beacon of democracy” in its Taiwan Travel Act, which was signed into law last month, this leading light has dimmed and the island appears trapped by its internal and external problems.

No doubt Taiwan’s fascination with the myth of independence plays a role in its predicament, but the main reason is the changing global order inspired by the rivalry between China and the US.

Any serious discussion about Taiwan must be framed by the larger context of China-US relations.

The US approach is shaped by its two contradictory policies on China. The first is its “one China” policy, the result of three Sino-US joint communiqués and in place since president Richard Nixon’s time. The second is America’s special relationship with Taiwan, centred on its 1979 Taiwan Relations Act and a basis for its geopolitical strategy to check and contain China’s rise.

In foreign policy circles in the US, the doves favour engagement with Beijing while the hawks lean towards containment.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of China’s reform and opening up. Over the past 40 years, US policy has tended towards engagement, on the belief that a good relationship with China would not only enable Chinese integration into the Western democratic system, but also open up the lucrative Chinese market to American business.

However, China’s development since the 18th Communist Party congress in 2012 has punctured the optimism of the China doves, who noted Beijing’s efforts to consolidate political authority at home and seize greater control of its own growth by building a market network through the “Belt and Road Initiative”.

This shift in direction was given political and legal legitimacy at the 19th party congress last year and through the constitutional revision this year. China has entered a “new era” founded on “Xi Jinping Thought”, the president’s political theory.

The new era has two main goals. One is to achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, where unifying with Taiwan is a must. The other is to build a “community of common destiny” that rivals and transcends the US-led global order. The bottom line is, China has not become a democracy as the US had wished. It has followed its own path by developing socialism with Chinese characteristics, for which the party’s leadership is key.

The US is increasingly worried that China’s growing clout could evolve into animosity and aggression. The worry that the two powers are locked in a “Thucydides Trap” has encouraged the rise of the China hawks. Late last year, the US named China a key rival and a revisionist power in its new national security strategy. This year, the Taiwan Travel Act was introduced and President Donald Trump is acting on his threat to launch a trade war with China.

Against this backdrop of China-US rivalry, Taiwan has become an important part of the US strategy.

On Taipei’s part, attention from the US is welcome at a time when the island is coming under mounting pressure from Beijing. Since the DPP returned to power in the 2016 elections, the island has become more active in its push for independence. The DPP government has also abandoned the “1992 consensus”, a cornerstone of cross-strait peace.

The Taiwanese may see the Taiwan Travel Act – which encourages high-level exchanges between US and Taiwanese government officials – as a security guarantee. But it is only a bargaining chip the US uses in its negotiations with China.  Just as Syria is being used as a fulcrum for the US to confront Russia in the Middle East, North Korea and Taiwan are being used by the US as a fulcrum to confront China.

The Taiwan issue is a “leftover problem” that originated in China’s civil war, and Beijing regards Taiwan as a core interest that it will never give up. However, for the reasons outlined above, political reconciliation between the two sides, and ultimately reunification, has become increasingly unlikely. And the provocative behaviour of the independence-leaning DPP will only increase the possibility that China would take control of Taiwan by force.

With these question marks hanging over Taiwan’s security, foreign investors are likely to stay away while local investors find greener pastures elsewhere. This is the inescapable larger trend. Yet, the DPP has failed to appreciate that the 1992 consensus is a prerequisite for the sustainable development of the Taiwanese economy.

Both the 1992 consensus and the “one China” policy are important. The 1992 consensus must remain valid for the US to stop the mainland from unilaterally resolving the Taiwan issue, and the “one China” principle must be in force for it to rein in Taiwan’s radical independence forces.

The China hawks in the US blame the failure of the country’s China policy on its misunderstanding of Chinese intent. But in fact, the fault lies in the DPP’s abandonment of the 1992 consensus and moves towards independence, as well as the US enactment of the Taiwan Travel Act, which gave Taiwan unrealistic expectations of its political future.

Thus, the US and Taiwan have jointly upset the status quo that has existed for decades, and are forcing Beijing to seriously consider taking control of Taiwan by force, under the provisions of its Anti-Secession Law.

By aligning itself with the US, the DPP government in Taiwan has turned its back on being part of the Chinese nation. It could be called a separatist regime. In short, the DPP’s decision to stand against the people on both sides of the strait will only hasten Taiwan’s marginalisation, weakening the economic strength, geopolitical clout and global position of this so-called “beacon of democracy in Asia”.

Tian Feilong is an associate professor at Beihang University’s Law School in Beijing


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For all its power, China can’t sever Taiwan’s links to the rest of the world

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion

Michal Thim says the poaching of Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies may seem a symbolic victory for Beijing, but it will do little to dent the island’s relationships with its unofficial allies

First it was Sao Tome and Principe, then Panama and now the Dominican Republic. These three countries have one thing in common: all have switched recognition from the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the People’s Republic of China following the 2016 electoral victory of the Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan. The Dominican Republic made its move on May 1 and became the most recent of Taiwan’s erstwhile “diplomatic allies” to do so.

But calling countries that recognise Taiwan “allies” doesn’t really reflect the true meaning of the term, considering that some have been quite eager to initiate the change. The Dominican Republic mulled such a move as early as 2013, for example.

Though “diplomatic ally” is a misnomer, it is a term rooted in the struggle between Beijing and Taipei.

Since Taiwan’s democratisation in the 1990s and China’s rise to the status of global power, the old dispute over the legitimacy to rule all of China has been substantially transformed. Nowadays, Taiwan has neither the means nor the political will to continue the so-called “chequebook diplomacy” to prevent its allies switching to Beijing’s side. And it no longer claims to be the legitimate government of what constitutes the People’s Republic of China.

In the past, losing allies was a sensitive topic in Taiwan, and had a considerable psychological impact. However, as diplomatic recognition for Taiwan has gradually been reduced to a handful of smaller countries, the relative importance of those relationships has decreased. The Taiwanese public has also grown increasingly cynical and started to question whether the funds set aside to ensure this recognition was money well spent.

Beijing’s purpose in poaching Taipei’s allies is not a mystery. Post 2016, it is both a punishment for the refusal of Tsai Ing-wen’s administration to state that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic of China, and a form of psychological pressure aimed at Taiwanese and the international audience, including international media.

Beijing’s endgame is well known: absorption of what is considered a “lost territory” into the People’s Republic, no matter how forcefully Taiwan’s populace is opposed to it. Going after Taipei’s diplomatic recognition seems logical. The example of the Dominican Republic shows that Beijing does not even have to try too hard.

The Dominican Republic will not be the last “diplomatic ally” to be poached. The Vatican’s possible switch had been considered a done deal earlier this year, and still might materialise in 2018. Even if negotiations prove too complicated, other countries that still recognises the Republic of China might need considerably less convincing.

Psychological pressure is without doubt a factor in Beijing’s actions, but as Taiwanese grow accustomed to decreasing recognition for Taipei, they have also become more resilient. The loss of recognition by South Korea and Singapore in the early 1990s was a blow; the same move by the Dominican Republic in 2018 is little more than a nuisance.

Granted, Beijing may see value in removing diplomatic recognition for Taipei even without achieving any concessions from Taiwan. The continuous existence of the Republic of China is an obstacle to achieving the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. However, what would happen if, one by one, all of Taipei’s “diplomatic allies” move over to Beijing’s side? What does Beijing think it could achieve?

The idea that such a move would restrict Taipei’s freedom of action internationally rests on the faulty assumption that its “diplomatic allies” are the lifeline connecting the island to the outside world. Instead, Taiwan maintains extensive global engagement, including significant relationships with the United States, Europe and Japan. Its relationship with Japan is especially important, if underappreciated, and Tokyo understands that Taiwan’s security is of the utmost importance to Japan.

Taking away Panama or the Dominican Republic has only a marginal impact on the nature of Taiwan’s unofficial relationships. Forcing Japan to turn against Taiwan is something that would hurt Taipei. However, for all the power that Beijing has accumulated and the energy it commits to the task of Taiwan’s international marginalisation, Japan is firmly out of its reach.

Objectively speaking, with no “diplomatic allies” left, the Republic of China would have lost any semblance of external recognition. However, that would not necessarily undermine its claim to statehood: external recognition is not a prerequisite for statehood, as defined by the Montevideo Convention of 1933. Having a territory, a population, and a political authority is.

The Republic of China would still be a sovereign state even with no diplomatic recognition. However, Beijing understands that the symbolism of stripping Taipei of diplomatic recognition matters more than the objective reality of international law.

The trouble with such an approach is that, by the time it happens, there will be no one in Taiwan who would care. Taiwan has been dealing with disappearing diplomatic support long enough to be able to secure other ways and means of external engagement. Countries that maintain close unofficial relations with Taiwan are not going to change their course based on the recent and future derecognitions.

Moreover, the resources that Taipei allocated to preserve ties with Panama or the Dominican Republic could and should be used to boost public diplomacy outreach that would bypass old-fashioned diplomatic ways.

Beijing may think that, by removing Taiwan’s diplomatic recognition, it is killing Taipei’s will to resist its demands. Instead, its attempt to gradually eliminate Taipei from the international arena will only fuel indifference in Taiwan and prompt unofficial allies to find other ways to secure Taiwan’s standing.

Michal Thim is a Taiwan analyst at the Association for International Affairs (Czech Republic) and a fellow of the Metropolitan Society for International Affairs (US)

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他改變了阿仙奴 也改變了英超




















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In China’s embrace, Hong Kong people face a stark choice: money or freedoms

CommentInsight & Opinion
Michael Chugani says with the mainland drawing Hong Kong closer every day, Hongkongers who seize the huge economic opportunities on offer must realise they may also have to give up personal freedoms

We know mainland China is intent on drawing Hong Kong closer to it, but has that process accelerated? I asked myself this after Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor used Mandarin at a national security forum last Sunday. Maybe she shunned Cantonese in deference to Beijing’s liaison office boss Wang Zhimin. But it jolted me into realising we need to wake up and smell the change.

A local think tank organised the forum. It was held in Hong Kong. Shouldn’t Lam have chosen the dialect of Hongkongers even though Wang understandably used Mandarin? But we’re now living in a Hong Kong very different from that of just a year ago. And you can bet next year’s Hong Kong will be even less recognisable.

The sell-by date of saying you don’t want Hong Kong to be just another Chinese city has long passed. We’re already halfway there. You’re living in la-la land if you believe “one country, two systems” and 2047 were meant as buffers.

Beijing never intended Hong Kong to be a part of China in name only, letting it retain all the trappings of a British colony. Sculpting the city to fit into the national character was always part of its plan. The question was at what pace.

It was gradual and unobtrusive at first. But then came the Occupy uprising, localism, the independence movement, booing of the national anthem, and Benny Tai Yiu-ting’s thoughtless talk in Taiwan of independence. Yes, it was free speech and I will defend his right to it, though not necessarily to the death. But he exercised it in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Nothing personal, since he’s a friend, but I really think Tai can do us all a favour by quitting his university law professor job and agitate for political change as an ordinary citizen. His folly further convinced Beijing it needed to hasten the pace of morphing Hong Kong into a shape that is less distinguishable from mainland China. We now need to think of mainland China as a giant magnet drawing us unstoppably closer.

Expect our officials to use Mandarin instead of Cantonese whenever mainland officials attend local functions. We must love the country and party. We must stand for the national anthem. Mainland officials no longer have any qualms about pressing the government to enact national security legislation. New limits have been drawn on who qualifies as a Legislative Council candidate.

You can welcome the magnet absorbing us as a new frontier of opportunities or fear it as a black hole. My part-time local domestic helper told me just months ago that her university-aged daughter wanted to stake her future in democratic Taiwan rather than in a city being gradually swallowed by a communist state.

But, last week, she told me her daughter is now considering staking her future in the promised economic gold mine of the Greater Bay Area. From seeking democratic sanctuary to risking personal freedoms for economic opportunity – that’s the Sophie’s Choice Hongkongers now face.

We never had to make that choice before. We took for granted that economic opportunity was hitched to the personal freedoms we grew up with. But economic opportunity in Hong Kong is now a myth. It exists only for our tycoons.

If you’re young, want to be rich, afford a flat, or simply land a job with a mobility ladder, get out of Hong Kong. Consider mainland China. Its lures are plentiful but the price is high. You must pay by giving up Facebook, YouTube, and free political speech. You must stand for the national anthem and love the party.

As the magnet draws us ever closer, the differences between us and the mainland will narrow anyway. The Sophie’s Choice will then be to stay and pick the abundance of low-hanging fruit in a nation hurtling towards being the world’s largest economy, or flee to a democratic haven that may not offer everything else you want.

Michael Chugani is a Hong Kong journalist and TV show host